Archive | December, 2013

Q and A with Kate Martin – Former Volunteer in Laos

29 Dec

So I know I haven’t been posting too much on my actual work here. In part because I’m still getting my head around what I will be doing while I’m here and in part because there is just so many other interesting stuff that I want to write about. However, I will try to tell you guys about my work here a little more and to start that process, below is a Q and A style email thread that I had with Kate Martin as I was getting ready to make the trip to Laos. Kate is the volunteer that I have taken over from while she takes a well-deserved holiday and comes back as a full-time employee in 2014.

A bit of background on Kate:

Kate was based in Vientiane for twelve months working as a Freshwater Fisheries Research Officer with the Living Aquatic Resources Research Centre (LARReC). LARReC is responsible for conducting research in the development of fish passage technology.

The aims of Kate’s assignment were to build capacity to develop and trial fishways. Kate  assessed the organisation’s core skills, developed training, procedures, guidelines, and a monitoring and evaluation system, and delivered training to staff. Kate also strengthened partnerships with existing networks.

Kate has a Bachelor in Applied Science in Adventure Ecotourism and, after working in the tourism industry for four years, decided on a change to working for Fisheries. Kate has worked for fisheries for the last three years and has experience in fishways, fishway assessment and social surveys. 

Kate applied for the program because she wanted to share her knowledge and skills, immerse herself in another culture, and learn from the life experiences that it has provided.

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[LB] How have you found your placement? It seems like this one is really well-developed with a large number of people working on the project from both Australia and Laos. I’ve heard some mixed responses in terms of these kind of placements. Nothing negative but some seem to be much more structured and organised than others. 

[KM] My placement so far has been great. The first couple months are a great settling in period, just be willing to get to know your colleagues. Having lunch and parties with them will make the transition a lot easier. The project is very much supported by Australia and a number of Lao organisations, so you will have a great support network. It is very well structured in terms of meeting deadlines etc. but there are still things that pop up in between that throw us off course and there will also be some down time. The best advice I can give to people is to take initiative during those times and provide training in emails, Powerpoint etc.

[LB] What is your professional background? How did you find the settling in period?

[KM] I actually studied adventure eco-tourism and found myself in fisheries. I have worked with Lee and the rest of the team in Australia for the past 4 years at Narrandera Fisheries Centre so I was very familiar with their work before arriving here in Laos. So the settling in maybe a little different for you as I just left Australia and was doing the some work here in Laos. Don’t stress there will be people here to support you if you are having difficulties. Also, there is an Australian guy based here in Laos who runs the ACAIR project. He will be your boss and will point you in the right  direction if things become too confusing or if you find that you are struggling a little. It is a very relaxed culture they don’t stress.

[LB] What have been the hardest aspects of the role?

[KM] Hardest part has been communication but you will pick that up as you are going and you will find the best way to communicate. Sometimes the project is hectic and things don’t always go to plan so you will have to think quickly on your feet during these times. You will get frustrated, I won’t lie, but that is all part of it.

[LB] What have been the best aspects of the role?

[KM] Best part is that you will learn so much in such a short time, you have a great time with everyone you work with and other people you will meet along the way. You will get to see a lot of the country in through work and you will have opportunities to take holidays as well.

[LB] How many volunteers do you know/work with?

[KM] I work with no other volunteers, just me and Lao colleagues. There are a few volunteers here in country from Australia and the rest of the world. You will meet them during your first couple of weeks in Laos and they will become a little family/support network.

[LB] Do you live in a shared place or your own unit?

[KM] I live in a share house with an Australian and Swiss guy. You will do house hunting when you arrive. There are a couple of websites that you can look for share houses, houses or units for rent if you’d like to get your head around everything but you will do most of this when you arrive. LB note: I now live in Kate’s old house and it’s awesome!

[LB] Have you had much time to check out the country and travel?

[KM] You will have plenty of time to see the country and many other countries. There are plenty of annual holidays that Laos has that will give you time to travel and it wont eat into your recreational leave and you can also do plenty of weekend trips.

[LB] When do you finish your placements and what are your plans afterwards?

[KM] I finish in November so I may get to meet you in person before I finish my placement. Afterwards I am coming back to Laos to work more on the project so I may get the opportunity to work with you. I will be travelling before heading back to OZ and having Xmas with the family and then probably be back in January sometime.

[LB] How have you found learning the language? Difficult?

[KM] You will have language lessons in you arrive and you can continue with it throughout the year its not to difficult you just have to stick with it.

Thank you to Kate for allowing me to publish this stuff. I hope it’s provided a bit of insight into my placement here.

Until next time,

Len

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Falang on Bikes – Tackling the Thakhek Loop

12 Dec
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A view of the river in front of the Sabaidee Guesthouse

The Lao National Day celebrates the day the Communist Government gained control of Laos and took this great nation that I now call home into the 21st Century (debatable). Unfortunately, 8 Aussies and 2 Americans couldn’t hang around for the festivities and set off on a crazy adventure, touring around a 450km loop of the Khammouane province in central Laos…on Chinese mopeds.

I have to say straight off, this has to be in the top 3 trips that I have ever done. I dunno what the other two are but I’ve traveled a fair bit so I’m sure there have been other great trips. The scenery, the locals, the company, the red dust, it all came together into a perfect soup of fun.

We arrived in Thakhek late on Thursday night, tired and a little drained from the van ride south. It took us some time to find the much vaunted Thakhek Travel Lodge (don’t be fooled by the Travel Lodge part of the name, like many things in Laos, it’s a copy). Apparently this place is owned by Mr Ku, the guy who “invented” the loop and has some expensive mopeds to rent out with the guarantee that if anything goes wrong along the trip, he would help. Make of that what you will.

Once we off-loaded our bags and found the reception, our next task was to convince the sleepy/drugged up guy at reception that we had in fact booked enough rooms for all us and that no, it wasn’t a falang scam.

I had booked a single room as I was a last-minute straggler to join this trip (I was a bit hesitant to join a 4-day motorbike trip having absolutely no motorbike riding skills). The website said that it was standard single room with a fan and it was true to its word. I awoke on Friday morning a bit weary and confused. Not really sure if I was in Sydney or in Laos.

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My standard bed and a fan room

We set off in pursuit of our bikes and landed 4 Mr Ku and 4 Wang Wang specials. Fueled up, badly drawn maps memorised and with excessive amounts of Iodine, we set off, excited of the adventure to come.

All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

Badly drawn map

Badly drawn map

DAY 1 – THAKEK – BUDDAH CAVE – THA FALANG – MAHAXAI – THALANG

First stop was Buddha cave. The most exciting part of this being the bit of off-road track where I almost stacked it on at least 3 or 4 occasions. The cave itself wasn’t too bad and was full of Buddhas. When we were leaving some monks were having lunch and it was funny to see them looking at us in awe and us looking at them in equal amounts of awe. 

Monks

Monks

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Next stop was Tha Falang swimming hole. It was picturesque and refreshing. It was also around this point that I realised how dusty it is here in Laos. The red dust gets on and in everything.

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We hit a nice patch of highway before and after our lunch stop and I was gaining in confidence quickly. Even managing a few wobbly waves at the local school kids who, as if on cue, would wave and greet each of us as we sped past.

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Gangnam style Lao-style

We even manged a quick stop at a stoned mechanic’s house to fix a wobbly basket and a few other wobbly things. Lunch consisted of Pho and some boiled nuts which I’m now addicted to.

Stoned mechanic

Stoned Mechanic – spot the little girl

Having split up into two groups, the fast and slow (I’m proud to say that I was in the fast group), we powered forward. Having grown accustomed to the heat here in Laos and being a complete noob on the bike, I thought I was being clever by wearing a t-shirt and boardies (commando style). However, as the sun started to set and we hit the mountains, it started to get cold, really cold. By the time we managed to find a local market, I was at the ‘it’s really fucking cold’ stage. The locals watched me put on all but 2 of my t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts and a newly acquired pair of trackies.

2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of trackies, 4 t-shirts and a shirt

2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of trackies, 4 t-shirts and a shirt

This wasn’t close to enough to keeping me warm but we pressed on. By the time we reached the Sabaidee Guesthouse in Thalang, I was cold and frustrated at having just driven 20km, in the dark and through very gravely/sandy road. We arrived to a welcome fire and the awesome Mr Pontoon. An amazing feed was provided and we got a few hours rest before another tough day on the road.

Oh and Pete and I began our 4-day-long Petong dominance over Tom and Sean.

Len and Pete's court

Len and Pete’s court

DAY 2 – THALANG – LAKSAO – BAN NAHIN

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We mustered the courage to tackle day 2 after hearing many stories that this was going to be a tough ride, potholed roads and construction sites. We managed to easily conquer both the first bumpy section to Laksao and the next highway section with relative ease and minimal problems. I managed to get up to around 70km/h as my confidence continued to rise on the bike.

Tom doing his thing

Tom doing his thing

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My beast

My beast

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Once we arrived in Ban Nahin, Tom and I ventured out to try and find a massage place with no luck. Pete and I once again cleaned up on the Petong pitch.

DAY 3 – BAN NAHIN – KONLOR CAVE – KUON KHAM

The Konglor cave is probably the biggest attraction in this part of Laos, and the reason most people do the Thakhek Loop. It’s a 7.5 km cave under a mountain with a river flowing through it. It takes about an hour to get through it by motorised canoe.

The night before I met a couple of travelers who gave me some tips of how to get to the cave. They told me about a shortcut that would cut a fair chunk of time out of our trip and was also kinda fun if also a little dangerous. It was a creek crossing!

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The Konglor cave is massive and dark (as you’d assume a mountain’s undercarriage would be) and has some pretty impressive stalactites and stalagmites. You can rent headlamps if you want to see anything, but even then it’s pretty dark and kind of peaceful just cruising through the darkness.

Pool just outside Konglor Cave

Pool just outside Konglor Cave

Miner Sean

Miner Sean

The rides on day 2 and day 3 were probably my favourites. The long windy roads in the mountains, cruising through small villages, saying hello to welcoming kids and the awesome lengths of off-road fun. The only not-so-fun bits were when wildlife would decide to end their lives (and potentially mine) by running across the road without any warning or sense, right around  the time I would happen to pass them by. I lost count how many close calls there were but I remember fondly at least two dogs and a piglet who all tried to get a tire tread tattoo. It was all a bit like Mario Kart in real life.

DAY 4 –  KUON KHAM – THAKHEK

The last day was a cruisy 150km ride home. I got some clear road and got to around 85km/h before slowing down when I realised that I had almost completed the whole loop without any problems and it would suck to come off the bike and taste bitumen now.  The dozens of speeding buses, trucks and 4WDs, coming dangerously close to wiping me out on a number of occasions made me swear out loud every time they passed by.

On the way back to Thakhek I passed a sign which said “Great Wall, 200m”. This and a half a tank of fuel was enough encouragement to venture out on my last dirt road. I drove a good 500m or more before I reached the river where there was no Great Wall in site. Luckily I managed to see some cool pictures of the Great Wall when I googled it from home.

Some of us got very, very bad massages in town which was a funny-in-hindsight way to finish off a great trip.

The whole trip was absolutely amazing and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering doing it. The places we stayed at were great and quite cheap. Including the minivan, bike hire and post-trip massages, I spent around $260 over the 4 days.

Much love,

Len

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What a crazy day

8 Dec

Ok, I know that I haven’t been keeping up my end of the bargain with this posting business. I promise I have lots of drafts saved, but have just been struggling to find the time to finish the drafts off and get them to your curious minds and curb your enthusiasm.

Today has hit me like a tonne of bricks. I woke up not too late but feeling a little under the weather. Not sure if it’s the smell of burning plastic or a lingering chest cold I picked up while doing the Thakhek Loop but I was not feeling the best. I started off with work in bed. Sent off some results from a bunch of experiments we did last week and then started to chat to Elizabeth. Fast forward a few hours and I was riding home after picking up a Lao-style Vietnamese Banh mi roll. I had one last night and was craving another one. They tend to swap the pickled carrots for the papaya salad over here but I have to say, and this is going to be controversial, the ones here are better than the rolls both in Australia AND in Vietnam. Maybe it’s the MSG or the delicious coriander but they are very tasty.

Having smashed the roll, I jetted off to the gym with plans of taking my first Lao yoga class. Now I wasn’t expecting anything amazing or anything but what I got was way, way below my low expectations. The classes at this  “western-style gym” are held in a big warehouse-type room with a concrete floor. Not unlike the floor at the Virgin Active gym I used to frequent. Well…it’s actually very much unlike that gym.

There were already a number of people in the warehouse, waiting for the class to begin. I got my soft mat-type thing and began to watch the other people take selfies, talk on the phone and just generally act uninterested to about to do yoga. It was the most un-yoga like place I’ve ever been to. Our instructor was a lovely ladyboy named Vanhly with a sparkling “sexy sure” top on. The class was in Lao and in the 20 minutes that I managed to hang around, we did a total of 1 pose that I have ever seen or done at any yoga studio.

Following that experience, I bought some groceries and was riding home, trying to decide where to get dinner when I witnessed the most horrific thing I have ever seen. Here’s a recap:

I was riding my bicycle
Riding around, not knowing if to get dinner or not
I was riding for ages
Aimlessly
Then when I was on this long and dark road, heading home, I decided to do a u-turn and actually get dinner
50m after I did that, I saw 2 motorbikes heading the opposite way
I don’t think they had lights on or were wearing helmets
A random parked car that was on their side of the of the road started to do a u-turn
They were obviously going too fast and either not paying attention or were drunk
It looked like they had enough time to stop or maybe they thought the car would stop doing the u-turn and they could get around it
One motorcyclist started to break and was swerving but managed to just stop in time
While his mate t-boned the car at full speed
He hit the car just as I was passing it
The sound of the impact was horrible
Some shrapnel hit my body
Something hit my bike
I just ducked my head and rode another 50m or so
I was in massive shock
Didn’t know if to stop or not
There were people on either side of the road that were yelling
I stopped, looked back, saw the bike mangled up in the car and then started to ride again
I have heard stories of foreigners stopping at accidents and then getting the blame by police and the people in the accident
I also watched an Insight episode that covered this very issue
I would be surprised if the guy survived
He slammed into the driver’s side of the car so the person in the car could have been hurt too
I didn’t know if to go back and help or not
I just kept riding
I rode home in a state of shock. 

From the land of Laos,

Len

P.S. To leave on a slightly more pleasant note, I have spent the past hour playing hide and seek with a mouse/rat that is part of a family that lives in our walls. It managed to get onto my bed twice. I don’t know why it wants to go there but I’m going to try really hard to not think about it.

The illusive rat

The illusive rat/mouse

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